Podcast Transcriptions

Pursue What Matters

Episode 65: Flow Book Review

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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
You’ve probably heard about flow, you know, those supposed moments of high creativity, where people seem to lose track of time are highly productive and are enjoying life to the fullest. Do you have many flow moments in your life? Well, if not, you need to tune in today because it is possible to engineer more flow in your life.

Dr. Melissa Smith 0:19
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the Pursue What Matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. Today, we are talking about the research of highly Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whoa, I’m so sorry. It’s like wow that’s a really hard name. So he’s a Hungarian researcher who developed the concept of flow, and wrote the best selling book that covers the research. So the book, of course, is Flow. And today, we are doing a lovely book review of this research and the book. And it’s, it’s really awesome research. It’s such an interesting concept, and has a lot of great applications. And you’ve probably heard about it.

Dr. Melissa Smith 1:29
But before we jump in, I just want to talk about our theme today. So every week with the podcast, my goal is to help you develop and strengthen your confidence to lead. And I tried to do that in one of three areas. And so today with with the book review, my goal is to help you strengthen your confidence to lead in the area of clarity, leading with clarity. So understanding purpose and goals, right, because the flow is all about clarity and having a challenging goal and purpose. And then also curiosity and kind of understanding what you are well attuned to and so that those are the themes for today as we think about flow, and how it can help you strengthen your confidence to lead. So with that, let’s jump in.

Dr. Melissa Smith 2:33
Okay, so what is flow anyway? And why would you want more of it in your life. So in a nutshell, the best moments in our life occur when a person’s body or mind are stretched to its limits, in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile. Okay, so that’s it in a nutshell, of course, we’ll break that down. But this is interesting, because, you know, conventional wisdom holds that, that most of us, right, like most of us believe that we’d be most happy if we could just lay around and relax all day. So you know, if we could just live our lives on vacation, that would be the life for us. But of course, the research paints a very different picture. And this is very true of the research on flow. So what the research indicates is that we are happiest when we are challenging ourselves and stretching ourselves in a worthy goal. And so if you remember from my podcasts on the upside of stress, people typically say that they want less stress in their lives. Because you know, of course, who wouldn’t want less stress. But when people actually have less stress, they also have more depression, because it turns out that having stress in your life is a sign that you’re living a meaningful life. So you have things that you care deeply about. So you know, you got to be careful what you wish for. So when we think about stress, it’s a sign that you’re living a meaningful life. And so that’s a really good corollary to thinking about flow.

Dr. Melissa Smith 4:08
So the the message is don’t wish for easy days and relaxing in the sun. Okay, you know, maybe once in a while, and it’s summer. So you should definitely take a vacation, which you know, we’ll be talking about that as well. But as humans, we need to grow and we need to develop and we need to challenge ourselves that in a very real way, we need to pursue what matters in order to live a fulfilling life. And that, that’s, that’s part of how we’re wired. And that’s like, as a species that’s really important to us. And that’s exactly what he found in his research.

Dr. Melissa Smith 4:47
And so, let’s introduce you to the book and the author. So he is a psychologist and “his investigations of optimal experience,” so that’s what we think about when we think about flow, “revealed that what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness called flow”. So, “during flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life.” And in the new edition of the groundbreaking classic work, so it came out like in I think, like the late 90s, and then it’s been updated. But the author demonstrates I’m just gonna, I’m not gonna pronounce his name every time because I’m, I’m sorry, I’m butchering it. But he demonstrates the ways this positive state can be controlled, not just left to chance. So Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, that’s the full title “teaches how by ordering information that enters our consciousness, we can discover true happiness and greatly improve the quality of our lives.” So from the New York Times, book review, “Flow is important. The way to happiness lies not in mindless hedonism, but in mindful challenge.” And then from Newsweek: “it rethinks what motivates people.” And from Time Magazine, “it explores a happy state of mind called flow, the feeling of complete engagement, and a creative or playful activity.”

Dr. Melissa Smith 6:14
Okay, and so then a little bit more about the author. So he is a professor at Claremont Graduate University and former chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. And this has really been the big focus of his research through the years. So there is a lot to this book, let’s, let’s jump into the main points of this book. And I’m definitely not gonna do a full overview of the book, I’m just going to highlight a few points that I think can be really useful to strengthening the way you lead in life and work. And again, like I mentioned, I think the ways that it can really help you strengthen and develop your confidence to lead is first with leading with clarity. So really pursuing what matters goals and vision, and then leading with curiosity, so understanding your strengths and potential and aligning with those consistently.

Dr. Melissa Smith 7:09
But first, let’s start with some questions to ask yourself to get thinking about this topic. So I want you to think about these questions. First. So do I ever have anything where my concentration and attention is so intense, that I stopped noticing my surroundings, even if I’m hungry or tired? So just think about, think about these questions for yourself? Do I ever do anything where my skills have become so well practiced, that everything seems to come spontaneously and effortlessly, effortlessly? And where I feel confident that I will be ready to meet any new challenge? And do I ever do something that I feel is worth doing for its own sake? In other words, something I would do even if I didn’t get money, praise or recognition for it. And even if I didn’t get if it didn’t get me anything else, like better health or improved skills? And so if you answered yes to one or more of those questions, you know, how often do you have such feelings? So if it’s, if it’s often, then you have a lot of phone experiences? If you answered yes to to that, you know, quite often, then, then that’s great. If you answered no to all three questions, you may be lacking the experience of flow in your life. So if you have flow experiences rarely, like less than once a week, you may want to increase the frequency of such optimal experiences. So I think that’s just a good kind of quick assessment to kind of help you look at, okay, like how engaged am I in my life. And it’s this, this nice balance of challenge and mastery, which of course, we will jump into right now.

Dr. Melissa Smith 9:16
So there are kind of three, three key points that I want to focus on. And the first one is the difference between pleasure and enjoyment. And that really sets the foundation for the other two points. But this is this is the foundation. So when we think about pleasure, so he defines pleasure as a feeling of contentment, that one achieves whenever information in consciousness says the expectations set by biological programs or by social conditioning have been met. So when we think about pleasure, it’s it’s an important component of the quality of life, but by itself, it does not bring Happiness. So, you know, when we think about pleasure, and the thing that he says about pleasure is that you know, so sleep, rest, food, sex, they all provide. They all provide pleasure. And they’re all important, for example, like on vacation, it’s part of as part of that reset process. And so it’s, this is part of why vacations are helpful. But pleasure is not is not rewarding. So that’s kind of the key to keep in mind, pleasure helps to maintain order, so it kind of helps to create a reset. So here, let me read this. So sleep rest, food and sex provide restorative homeostatic experiences, all right, kind of reset that return consciousness to order after the needs of the body intrude and cause psychic entropy to occur, that they do not produce psychological growth. So pleasure does not help us grow, they do not add complexity to the self pleasure helps to maintain order that by itself cannot create new order in consciousness.

Dr. Melissa Smith 11:17
So um, so pleasure does not help us grow, in contrast, is enjoyment. so enjoyable events occur when a person has not only met some prior expectation, or satisfied a need or desire, but also gone beyond what he or she has been programmed to do, and achieve something unexpected, perhaps something even unimagined before. So enjoyment is characterized by this forward movement by a sense of novelty, of accomplishment. So when you think about enjoyment, a lot of the experiences might not be particularly enjoyable or particularly pleasurable at the time, they’re taking place, that afterward, we think back on them. And we say that was really fun. After an enjoyable event, we know that we have changed that ourselves has grown, in some respect, we have become more complex as a result of it. So experiences that give pleasure can also give enjoyment. But the two sensations are quite different. So last thing I want to say about this, a person can feel pleasure without any effort, if the appropriate centers of in his brain are electrically stimulated, or as a result of the chemical stimulation of drugs, that it is impossible to enjoy a tennis game, a book, or a conversation unless attention is fully concentrated on the activity. So an example of something that’s enjoyable, would be like a marathon, during a marathon, it might not be enjoyable at all. But afterwards, you might finish and you’re like, that was enjoyable. And it’s the challenge of the event that is enjoyable, right? This is sometimes you look at, like triathletes, and you’re like why on earth would they do that, but it’s the challenge of the event that is in part that makes it enjoyable. And that process of growth, that makes them psychologically more complex as a result. So complexity requires investing psychic energy in goals that are new, and that are relatively challenging. So this natural connection between growth and enjoyment tends to disappear with time. And so as we grow older, we need to continue to challenge ourselves. If not, we run the risk of becoming complacent. And that is a big problem. And, you know, many adults run into this problem as they get older. And so that’s kind of the key to pay attention to. So this experience of enjoyment, what he found in his research is that there is a combination of eight elements together that creates this sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding that people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to fill it. And this in essence, is the definition of flow.

Dr. Melissa Smith 14:27
Okay, so here is another definition for the mental state of being in flow. And this is from an interview with Wired Magazine. So “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away, time flies, every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz, your whole being is involved and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” So it’s a great experience. So now let’s talk about the eight components of flow.

Dr. Melissa Smith 15:01
So first of all is a clear goal. So knowing what you want to do in any given moment is a key element of the flow experience. So that’s why games like tennis or chess, easily become flow experiences. So the rules and goals are very clear when you are doing an activity. So for example, where the goals are very vague, you can create specific goals and intentions for yourself. But it’s important that the goal is clear that makes a difference. And that is an activity that’s more likely to result in flow experience.

Dr. Melissa Smith 15:37
The second component is feedback. So you need to be able to tell if you’re getting closer to your goal or not. So, for example, again, in tennis, you can see immediately if you hit the ball, while when you’re playing a musical instrument, you can hear if you hit the wrong note. So almost any kind of feedback can be enjoyable, if it is related to your feedback or to your goal. So right you want the feedback to be immediate. And that is the most useful. So in the in gardening, you can see how your plants are growing right now that feedback isn’t necessarily immediate, but it is still feedback. So in a conversation with a friend, their response becomes your feedback when you’re working against a deadline, you can measure progress in terms of the amount of work you have completed in a certain time period.

Dr. Melissa Smith 16:26
So the third component is challenges match the skills. So the challenge matches your skill ability. And this is really important. So it’s important that what you do matches your ability to do it. If the task is too easy, you will become bored, if the task is too difficult, you will become frustrated. So the best place to be is somewhere between those two states, where there is a balance between your skills and the demands of the activity. So you must pursue attainable, but challenging goals.

Dr. Melissa Smith 16:59
And then the fourth component is concentration. So you know, of course, in our daily life, our attention is often split among many different distractions. And yet in flow, this split attention merges into a single beam of concentrated energy. So you’re able to achieve much more since all of your energy is devoted to the task at hand, you can feel a sense of ease and inner harmony. So you are just fully concentrated.

Dr. Melissa Smith 17:31
And then the fifth one is focus, which kind of seems like it would be the same as concentration, but it’s not. So with this component of the flow experience operating for you, your worries, and problems seem to fade away as you disappear into your work or activity. So everyday frustrations are removed from your attention. This brings a great sense of relief as you operate fully in the present moment. And I think what’s important to pay attention to with this is sometimes flow can can actually be a little bit problematic, because it we use it to kind of take us away from things that we actually need to pay attention to. So one of the examples that he uses throughout the book is surgeons, surgery is one of those activities that really hits all eight components of flow really, really well. But if not careful, some surgeons fall into the trap of workaholism because there’s nothing that replicates that flow experience, like surgery. And so they’re not careful, they don’t cultivate their family relationships, they avoid the everyday frustrations that they really need to be dealing with. And so, you know, there can be a dark side to flow if you’re not careful. And so you know, you don’t want to use flow to be escaping things that you genuinely need to be addressing in your life.

Dr. Melissa Smith 19:03
And then control is the seventh one. So when you are in flow, you feel that you can be in control of your actions and experience. Of course, you’re not in complete control, because that would mean that your skills were higher than your challenges. But you sense the possibility of control. You are on the edge where control is possible. So you’re challenged, that you’re on that edge where control is possible. So it’s that fine line. And then oh sorry, that was six.

Dr. Melissa Smith 19:38
And then seven is loss of consciousness, which is thinking and worrying about yourself can consume such a tremendous amount of psychic energy, right? Like if we just think about going through our day. We really spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves. But in flow, there is no room for this relentless self monitoring. And so this loss of self consciousness is we just stopped thinking about ourselves. So we’re so involved, committed and concentrated that we forget ourselves, you become part of all that surrounds you. So loss of self consciousness leads to a sense of self transcendence, you go beyond the boundaries of your own self concept. So that’s pretty cool. So you don’t really care what others think about you, you’re absorbed in the activity. So this can happen with dancing. And you’re so focused on the skill and the total mind-body connection in the moment that the entire world can, can kind of disappear from you.

Dr. Melissa Smith 20:33
And then the last one is the transformation of time. So you know, great swaths of time can be lost time can slow down, it can also speed up. So time seems to adapt itself to your individual experience. So ours may seem like minutes, when you are so absorbed in whatever you’re doing, that you don’t notice time is passing. Or in contrast, seconds may seem to last for minutes, as you know, in the case of the ballerina, doing a pure wet, or firefighter pulling a child from a building. So time adapts to your individual experience. So it can shrink, it can expand. So there are different ways that that happens. So those are the eight components of flow.

Dr. Melissa Smith 21:23
And then, the other concept. So yeah, the other concept that I want to talk about is this concept of the autotelic personality, which is a fun psychobabble term. But it this is this idea of the type of person that is capable of injecting everything they do with the flow experience. So if you remember, at the top of the podcast, I said that it’s possible to engineer flow experiences in your daily life. So you can create more flow experiences for yourself. And I don’t know about you, but flow is a pretty great thing. And so you can create more flow experiences for yourself. And so individuals who have an autotelic personality can find enjoyment in anything they encounter. So they’re able to enjoy an activity solely for its own sake. And when I think about these kinds of folks, I think about like my grandmother, so she was just she was able to be present and fully enjoy life. And it didn’t matter if she was visiting with friends, it didn’t matter if she was working at the library. She just, she just seemed present wherever she was, and she wasn’t in a rush. And she, she was very productive. And she got a lot done. And she wasn’t in a rush, and she just enjoyed life. And she was such a lovely example of so many things for me. Autotelic comes from the Greek for auto meaning self, and the Greek for Telos meaning goal. And so when we think about autotelic, it’s self contained activity done for its own sake. And it’s really based on two dimensions of consciousness. So the first one is differentiation. So unique skills that are you know, so we think about unique skills, autonomous, different, and then also integration, so much to think about, you know, to two dimensions of consciousness, differentiation and integration. And of course, integration is that this process that unites your goals, skills and relationships into a harmonious entity. And individuals who are able to master both integration and differentiation are those who develop a more complex personality oriented toward growth. And these are the individuals who he describes as having an autotelic personality, and who tend to have more flow experiences. And so the five characteristics of a complex personality are conveniently enough, they are the five C’s of a complex personality. And they include clarity, centering, choice, commitment, and challenge. And so let’s talk about these. And so these are the people most likely to experience flow, they they have this integration of differentiation and integration. And so these are some of the ways that you could start to engineer more flow experiences in your life.

Dr. Melissa Smith 24:40
So first of all, clarity, knowing what you want to do as you go through the everyday activities of your life. So do you do you plan your days? Do you have a vision for your days, so you know, I’ve talked about your big three planning and having three priorities for your day so you’re not being run? By your, by your schedule, you’re not being run out of your email box. But you are driving your days you have clarity about your days and why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Dr. Melissa Smith 25:10
Second is centering, becoming one with what you are doing. And when I think about centering, I think all about mindfulness, I think about presence. And so being where you are, this is where we think about getting away from multitasking, multitasking is not a thing, and being fully present and attentive, when you are with another person, getting rid of distractions, you know, if you’re going on a walk, you know, getting rid of the air pods or the earbuds, and just enjoying the sounds, looking at the mountains, those sorts of things, choice, the understanding that you have possibilities that you are not forced to do the things you do. And this, when I think about choice, I also think about mindset, and recognizing that there are many things that we do every day, that our mindset about those can make all of the difference. And so this was actually something that I was thinking about this morning, as I was journaling I journal every day. And for me, it’s just as part of my Mental Floss, it’s part of how I try and keep my head on straight. Because I, you know, like I, I’m committed to self awareness, and I just write like, I’d rather I’d rather enjoy life than lament it. And if we’re not kind of constantly pruning the sharp shrubs and doing some Mental Floss, it’s easy to, to have our mindsets mindset shifting in in ways that are not always helpful. And so kind of looking at my schedule and looking at many of the things that I’m doing. And I think one of the things that I was feeling earlier this week is just got too much to do. And feeling kind of stressed by all of that, and one shift that I was working on and kind of the choice as we think about this language.

Dr. Melissa Smith 27:08
But one of the one of the mindset shifts for me this morning was isn’t it lovely that I have so many meaningful things in my life, and how grateful I am that I have so many things that I care about, that it’s hard for me to choose, it’s hard for me to just settle on, you know, one or two things that I have so many wonderful things, and activities and passions and pursuits that are filling my life. I’m deeply grateful for that. And that is that some evidence of a full life to me and a meaningful life. And I’m deeply grateful for that. And then the other mindset shift for me is, is just trying to challenge some of the rigid expectations of the limits of our capabilities. And I think sometimes, especially as women and culturally, we have some of these expectations of like, maybe you can’t do that, or maybe you’re taking on too much, or are you sure you want to do that. And really just being willing to challenge some of those mindsets, and looking at, okay, if these are, if these are the choices that I’m making, what is going to help me to be successful with those. And so looking at those choices, and learning to look at those choices differently, and understanding that you do have possibilities that and that you’re not forced to do things you that you do.

Dr. Melissa Smith 28:41
And then the fourth one is commitment, the ability to care about the activities you are engaged in. And you know, that’s something that I, you know, really applies to what I was just talking about, rather than lamenting the activities that you’re engaged in learning to be grateful for them. And learning to recognize that there’s great value in those rather than feeling burdened by those things.

Dr. Melissa Smith 29:09
And then the last one is challenge the setting of higher and higher goals for yourself as you mastered your current skill level. And this is a topic that we were talking about earlier in one of our online membership groups related to eating recovery. And we were talking about this concept of complacency and how sometimes individuals get to a certain place in eating recovery and they are not they’re not actively in relapse, they’re doing okay, their family’s gotten off their back, but they are not pushing themselves to the next place in recovery. And the real, the real danger of not pushing themselves to the next place in recovery. And how incredibly important it is to challenge ourselves and to set higher and higher goals for ourselves as we master our current skill level now, right it’s important that we don’t, we don’t walk faster than we can run and that we pace ourselves. That’s definitely true in life, and that we have moments of rest and recovery. But we are a species that are designed to grow and to develop our potential and our purpose. And so, there’s no such thing as there’s no such thing as stasis. If you’re standing still, you’re regressing. And so you’ve got to be challenging yourself, you’ve got to be growing. If you’re not growing, you’re regressing. And so that is the last characteristic of a complex personality.

Dr. Melissa Smith 30:46
And so that those are the three main concepts from the excellent research and the great book that talks about the research from flow. So the full title of the book is Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, and it’s really good. It’s got a lot of good applications for life, so I would highly recommend it. Head on over to the website to check out the show notes with the resources for this episode and a link to the book flow at www.drmelissasmith.com/episode-65¬†again, www.drmelissasmith.com/episode-65. Please take a minute and review us on iTunes. We’re also on Spotify, you can subscribe to receive the podcast directly in your inbox on the show notes. The reviews really help people to find this. So I really appreciate you taking the time to do that. And on the show notes I will also link to a good little video that does a nice little summary of the book. So I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.

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